By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘West End Girls’ was the breakthrough single for the Pet Shop Boys, hitting the number one spot in the UK in early 1986. But the song has its origins several years before this. Just what is the meaning of this mid-80s classic, and which classic poem was an important influence on it?
Let’s take a closer look by travelling to that west end town and dead-end world where we’ll find those East End boys – and those West End girls …
‘West End Girls’: song meaning
The meaning of the lyrics to the Pet Shop Boys’ debut hit single is difficult to divine because they are, in fact, a medley of different voices (we’ll have more to say about this issue in a moment).
There is something disorienting, even confusing, about the syncopated lines, the brief details sketched in, and the way these come at us – spoken, rather than sung, by the band’s singer, Neil Tennant – quickly, even breathlessly.
One of the reasons why the song’s meaning is so difficult to pin down is that the lyrics actually cover a wide variety of subjects: sex, fashion, politics (that reference to travelling from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station alluding to the train route taken by Lenin in spring 1917 after he left Switzerland, where he’d been living in exile, and returned to Russia, ready to launch the October Revolution), and class.
The song’s lyrics focus on the nightlife of London, those trendy hotspots where young men and women meet each other for thrills, kicks, and pleasures. There are numerous allusions to sex (how ‘often’ people get ‘it’; whether they prefer a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ option) throughout the song.
The song’s opening lines, mentioning someone longing to end their life by placing a gun to their head, were inspired by a James Cagney film which Neil Tennant had watched while staying at a cousin’s home in Nottingham. As he was dropping off to sleep, the opening lines to the song came to him and he rushed off to find a pen so he could jot them down.
The city is a place where people can be driven to behave madly, becoming prone to random acts of chaotic violence, such as throwing chairs about in some down-at-heel bar or restaurant or contemplating blowing their brains out. In such a ‘dead end world’, the only release is escape – and this means, as often as not, sexual escape, into the arms of some casual here-today-gone-tomorrow lover.
The song’s second verse makes reference to advertising’s ubiquitous presence in the modern city: those posters everywhere, offering too many choices to us in the late stages of capitalism. Meanwhile, the third verse suggests that the couplings between the East End boys and the West End girls are casual and fleeting: to the people they copulate with, these boys and girls have no future and no past, since only the here-and-now matters.
‘West End Girls’: analysis
As we remarked above, there is something disorienting about ‘West End Girls’ – and this is perhaps one reason why Dusty Springfield, who would later collaborate with the duo on their 1987 song ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’, reportedly almost crashed her car when she first heard ‘West End Girls’ come on the radio.
The musical influences on the song are well-known: Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, the work of Bobby Orlando, even the drum pattern from Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ (which Orlando played for the duo when they paid him a visit in New York in 1983; from this session, the germ of ‘West End Girls’ was born).
But the literary influences are also worth mentioning. Tennant acknowledged the influence of T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land on the song’s lyrics: Eliot’s medley of different voices, each offering a tantalising glimpse into some aspect of London, was on or at least in Tennant’s mind when he composed the words to ‘West End Girls’.
Indeed, Eliot’s poem features couplings between men and women down by the Thames embankment, as well as an East End bar; there are also several people who believe themselves ‘better off dead’. The women or ‘nymphs’ in Eliot’s poem who consort with the rich bankers’ sons are a euphemistic reference to prostitution, and some listeners have assumed this is what ‘West End Girls’ is about, too.
However, Tennant has stated that the song is actually about ‘rough’ East End boys getting a ‘bit of posh’: those girls from the West End, the swankier and more gentrified part of the city. (Tennant’s statement that the line ‘Just you wait till I get you home’ was ‘a direct quotation’ from The Waste Land is actually probably a memory of several different lines from Eliot’s poem which had become fused within his mind.)
In the last analysis, ‘West End Girls’ is about escape: it’s about how working-class young men and upper-class young women both find some form of release from the overwhelming experiences of the modern city by getting with each other – if only for a short time.
The song took a long and meandering journey before it finally topped the charts in various countries. The original version recorded with Bobby Orlando in the US sounds very different from the eventual hit song: it’s much more a rap record, rather than the dance track it became (retaining rap elements).
This earlier version was a club hit in the US, but it was only after the Pet Shop Boys stopped working with Orlando and signed with EMI, with Stephen Hague offering to produce the single in a newer, reworked rendition, that it became a number one hit.